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Hilary Hahn, the BSO, and Brahms

Hilary Hahn plays violin at GBH Studios.
Chris Lee
Hilary Hahn

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, April 29

Hilary Hahn returns to Symphony Hall and the Boston Symphony as the soloist in the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms. The program, led by Andris Nelsons, also includes Mozart’s charming, lesser-known Symphony No. 33 and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s orchestrally imaginative Archora, inspired by the primordial energy of her Icelandic homeland.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Hilary Hahn, violin

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Symphony No. 33
Johannes BRAHMS Violin Concerto

To hear a preview of Brahms's Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn, as well as her reflections of her #100daysofpractice Instagram series, use the player above and read the transcript below.

Hear more from Hilary Hahn, with Jeremy Siegel, on GBH's Morning Edition.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Hilary Hahn, who has returned to the Boston Symphony for the Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms. Hilary, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Hilary Hahn Thank you. It's great to be here.

Brian McCreath I do want to talk about the Brahms. It's such an amazing piece, one that I'm sure you've played countless times, and you have recorded it. But before we even get into that, you've just wrapped up the seventh season of "100 Days of Practice," a social media thing mostly, I think, that tracks your progress through literally 100 days of your life practicing as a violinist. There's seven seasons that we could get into, but I want to ask you about this last season, this most recent. What is it about this season that felt different to you from previous seasons, because you are now a different person from who you were back then?

Hilary Hahn It's very true. I started the project thinking that people would be bored by it, but wanting to be part of a larger project that was happening across different genres on Instagram. It was mostly a visual art project, so people would post 100 days of whatever they were working on, or 100 days of sketches... It was sort of a way of continuing the creative process and not just highlighting results, because that was creating in the visual art world—as well as, I believe, in any art genre—a sense that everyone was already done, everyone was already perfect, and that's actually not ever the case. So I just thought, "What do I do for 100 days?" or, "What should I be doing for 100 days that I could join this project with?" That's how "100 Days of Practice" the hashtag started because the assignment for the artists was do a #100daysof whatever. So I just said "100 Days of Practice."

And I just was waiting for the complaints like, "Oh, why do we have to watch all of this practice?" "Where is the performance footage?" But in fact, it started to become a thing where I saw that practice had been very taboo for a long time. And you never observe a professional practicing. You're always told to go practice and improve. That's it. And you're supposed to emerge fixed, in a way. But you go in to the practice room not knowing how to fix the things that are there, not knowing what you're supposed to fix. You're just supposed to figure out what to fix and figure out how to fix it by yourself and then come out better. It's really a difficult task. So in the course of it, I realized that there was this sort of loneliness around the experience of practicing and vulnerability as well. That's what I explored in the past seasons, in the seasons since that first season.

I never know what the season is going to be about till I'm about halfway through it. [Hahn laughs] Sometimes it's been about finding a routine, you know, getting into the habit of practicing every day because there's a lot going on in life when you travel a lot. You actually don't wind up practicing every day. And then other seasons, it was about actually seeing my videos of my own practice as I was posting them and realizing what I wanted to work on the next day. So my playing actually got much better sometimes in the course of these 100 days. In this season, something about it was different. I somehow got through all of those phases that I mentioned from prior seasons really quickly, and by the middle of it, I realized that I was already in a groove with a relationship to practice every day. I was wanting to do the daily work. I knew what I wanted to work on, and I realized that just the fact that I was on the project was enough, and the posting was actually starting to then be too much for the project. So then I started batching the posts, so I would do the practice, I would take notes, I would video what I could, but I found that even having to find the phone while I was in the groove of practice—because I recorded on my phone—so having to find the phone and then set it up in the room... That interrupted my practice flow. So that's how I knew that I was in the project in the right way. So yeah, batching it was really helpful because then as I would develop something one day, I wouldn't feel the need to report on it that same day publicly. I kept track and then by the time I posted it, the results, the cumulative results of what I'd worked on, had solidified for me. And it felt really good, actually, to be in a very healthy place with practice that I've never been able to achieve before.

Brian McCreath That's a fascinating statement that you just made, "a healthy place of practice that you'd never been able to achieve before." With the career that you've had, that—

Hilary Hahn I know you would think we have it all figured out once we're performing like this, but everyone has their own balance of vulnerabilities and strengths.

Brian McCreath Yeah. So with this particular season, I did notice that there were times that the 100 Days of Practice that you would post would not be you with a violin. There are many times in this last "100 Days" that it was you... "There's a kind of practice that I'm doing today that doesn't involve the violin."

Hilary Hahn [Hahn chuckles] Yes. Or I would practice and I would forget to film it. But then there will be something else I was doing that was also practice that I've explored over the past few seasons. This idea of just being a practicer. It's 100 days of being a practicer. And that doesn't mean that you practice every day. You have to have intentional days off. There's nothing we do that's not about survival that is every day of our lives. It just isn't, you know? No routine holds for 100 days in a row living in the real world. [Hahn laughs] You know, we don't even necessarily eat three meals a day every day if we have even the access to food to eat three meals a day. And we don't always sleep eight hours a night even though we do sleep. So it's kind of like, sometimes you take a nap, sometimes you are just tired. So it's kind of like that, looking at practice as something that should be achieved every day. But in what way? That's the question, because also it's a lifelong art form. It's not a sport where you know you have an expiration date and this is all you've got for now so you go all in, but you also have to take care of yourself as you do that to extend that career time frame. For music, it's really a lifestyle. So it's not just 100 days in a row of practice. It's actually every day of your life from the time you start playing the instrument, until you either decide not to or you are forced to quit for one reason or another. So I think that's really an important thing to keep in mind with the whole idea of practice.

Brian McCreath And one of the things that you said in... I think it must have been your last post of the 100 days, was that you in the past—and maybe you didn't even frame it as you yourself, but you kind of brought us all in collectively to feel like, so much of practice we're taught in our younger days, whether it's a musical instrument or pottery or anything, is about avoiding a negative later. That's what you're trying to do in those early days. You're trying to just make sure you don't screw up. You know?

Hilary Hahn Yeah. You have lessons. You want to make your teacher happy. You need to learn this. You have a student performance, or you have a debut performance or something like that.

Brian McCreath And now it's a very different perspective that you have on it. That it's something that's, as you say, a lifestyle that is... Well, how would you describe it?

Hilary Hahn Well, I would say that now I have a relationship to that concept of failure. So I'm not afraid of it. And I also have a bigger perspective and I know my results. And so I think even before that though, it doesn't necessarily help long term to be avoiding bad things. So you go into the practice room and you have that fear of failure that motivates you in a way, but then there's really no reward at the end of that. So you didn't fail. Great. You know? [Hahn and McCreath laugh] Whew! But that doesn't actually help you grow. It just helps you short term. And it leads, I think, to more burnout, more self-judgment. The barometer of success and progress is then "I didn't mess up." And that's really a hard thing to carry constantly. So I find just in general it's equally effective to be like, "Well, what do I want to have happen?" Instead of, "What do I not want to have happen?" It's the same question. It's just you're working towards something that then frees you up for the next thing, rather than shuts you down before you do the next thing. It's much less of a heavy lift and I think long term, much more interesting with the idea of practice as exploration.

Brian McCreath It feels like there must be relevance for what you're doing here with the Boston Symphony this week, because I can't imagine that the Brahms Violin Concerto hasn't been in your repertoire since days in memorial. [Hahn chuckles] I mean, I don't know what the age was that you started playing it, but it's got to be pretty early.

Hilary Hahn I wanted to learn it so early and my teacher kept dangling it. [McCreath laughs] "You have to do this and then this and then this and then this, and then you get to Brahms." And so I learned so much repertoire so quickly just to be able to get to it.

Brian McCreath And you did that early and you, you know, you got—

Hilary Hahn 30 years ago, I just realized.

Brian McCreath That's how long you've played the Brahms?

Hilary Hahn Yes!

Brian McCreath Fantastic. What a great anniversary. But, if we look at it as an anniversary, that kind of diminishes what you've done through "100 Days of Practice." It's a different piece now for you because you're a different person with this different relationship. Is there any way that you can describe more of how that relates specifically to the Brahms Violin Concerto?

Hilary Hahn With a piece like the Brahms, when you start it as a student, you've already heard it in a concert many times from many musicians. And it's this pinnacle work along with Beethoven. It's sort of what you think is like the top of the repertoire. There's so much else, though, that along the way and after the fact, you realize is also a pinnacle of the repertoire. It's just the thing as a student that you get built up in your head. And I think that hearing all those different versions and then realizing that you're doing this piece, you kind of think, "What is my version?" People will ask you all the time, "So what's different about your playing?" "Why should you be playing the Brahms concerto at this age?" And I'm like, "I don't know. I don't have an answer. I don't know how I play it differently from other people. I don't know why anyone should listen to me play it. I'm just playing it. I love it." And then those kinds of thought processes lead you to think, "Oh, I have to create a way of being in this piece that is both respectful of tradition and individual to me." And that's kind of an artificial place to be, because the way you're different is that it's you playing. You don't have to do anything else. You don't have to think, "Oh, in this part, well, I'm going to do it differently by being faster or slower." You have to get to a point where you trust and know what your musical instincts are, so that you can then follow them and trust that they're not going to lead you in a direction that isn't you.

I think where you lose an audience is when you start trying and you stop being. So if you can be, you know, you do all the work, you do all the preparation you do, all the learning, the research, listening to everyone's recordings, you're informed. And then you just play. That is a magic place to be. But you can't do that until you have a lot of experience. And you can't do that until you have colleagues who can read you and know that this is you having an idea that they can trust. So it goes both ways. You have to trust your colleagues with their ideas, and trust that you're not going to depart from yourself. You're not going to depart from the piece by following their ideas. And they have to be able to trust you at the same.

Brian McCreath So I'm glad you brought that up, because one of the things that you're going to do at Tanglewood this summer is a little bit about conductor/soloist relationships. You're going to do something with Andris as a workshop for this. And it's not a topic that you see as a workshop topic very often. You usually have a soloist who says, "I will now take you through the Brahms" or whatever. Or a conductor might say, "I will now show you the technique I use for whatever." So tell me about what sparked this idea to dig into this more publicly with Andris, in a setting where you want to let people know what that kind of collaboration is like.

Hilary Hahn It's a complicated workshop to put together because it's difficult to talk about these things without giving away the magic, or overly criticizing the people who are involved in the workshop. And if you overly criticize a conductor in front of any musicians, it could kind of tank their relationship with the musicians, it could tank their reputation. And it's not criticism that I want to do, it's ideas. I want to just offer ideas and alternate ways. And the reason I came up with this idea, which I've been wanting to do forever—I did it once so far with Chicago Civic as part of my residency with the Chicago Symphony, and I did it as the soloist without a conductor also doing the workshop. And that was really great. And I worked with three conductors who were at the right point to be able to incorporate what I had to say and to try things and to be able to take it with them in the right way without being to, like thrown off by things. And so the reason I wanted to do this is because, first of all, doing the class with Andris is really special because he and I, we realized last summer at Tanglewood, both love the same thing about collaboration. We both love this building on another idea. So someone has an idea, and then you pick it up and then you develop it, and then the other person takes it back and develops it and gives it back. And it's just a very fast, amorphous thing, but it's really fun. So it's something that we both enjoy equally. And that's why I think it's going to be great to explore that with the conductors. It's a workshop as much for the conductors as it is for the orchestra, so it'll be good to be in that situation with those musicians on the podium and on their instruments. And I just think that it's amazing how a conductor can go through a whole course of study. And the only thing they're usually taught about working with a soloist is one session. They get one session of instruction, working with the soloist on how to follow.

Brian McCreath Wow.

Hilary Hahn That's it. And that is not conducting. That is not what a soloist needs. The second you follow, you're behind. The second you follow, the soloist is carrying the entire piece. We can't. It's like rear wheel drive with one wheel on ice. It's just like, there's so much involved that it has to be a collaboration. You have to be able to read the soloist. Every soloist wants something different, but for someone like me, I don't want someone to accompany me. It's not fun. I don't need to be there if it's an accompaniment situation, because it could be any soloist. I love the conversation and I get stronger when I have that collaborative experience. And so I find that often when I'm working with younger conductors who are at the height of their career and they have still much further to go, there will be basic things that they were never told, like don't beat through small cadenzas, for example, or "I want to hear your ideas." "I want you to push back against me sometimes." They don't know that. And so we'll go out to coffee and I'll be like, "Hey, so, you know, where are you with your relationship to collaboration?" That's how I learned that they often these days only get one session of training on how to work with a soloist in four years or two years of instruction. It's quite the thing. And it's often not with a professional soloist, it's with a student soloist and they're all finding their way together. So I think it can be just really good to present these different ways of thinking about collaboration, and they can all make it their own as they go.

Brian McCreath And I think for those of us who might be able to attend this, to be able to see you do this, it's also fascinating because we're in the audience and we're just enjoying Brahms or Beethoven. We don't really understand or we're not really thinking about that chemistry. We might have some understanding, some of us or whatever, but that's not on our mind. And so to be able to watch you with other conductors, with Andris, unpack that. It gives us a little bit more to walk into a concert hall with. It's an awesome thing to do for the public.

Hilary Hahn If you're curious to know more about the collaboration, watch the body language of the soloist and the conductor. Watch where the shoulders are leading. If a conductor is leaning—the conductor may not be looking at the soloist, but may be leaning a little bit with their body—they're very attuned and they're listening. And they'll sort of open their body language towards the soloist at the same time they open towards the orchestra, and the soloist will also... You can almost see the ear, the ear that's closest to the conductor, kind of like waiting for input and then the eye contact as well. Little moments of expression. It's not an act. It's just these micro expressions that you can see where there's something that happened like we just had a joke or we just understood something. And you can just see that like a conversation.

Brian McCreath That's a great tip for those of us in the audience to be able to sort of like, keep our eyes on certain things. That's awesome.

Hilary Hahn Don't just watch the soloist. Watch the space between the soloist and the conductor and you'll know a lot more about what the soloist is doing when you do that.

Brian McCreath Oh, I love that. That's great. Speaking of Tanglewood, you're on the opening concert for the BSO this summer playing Beethoven. You've already referenced that Beethoven and Brahms are sort of these pinnacles that you come into the violin understanding very quickly. Somehow all the cultural memory of generations has transmitted that these are the two that you've got to really pay attention to as a violinist. I'm sure that, as with Brahms, Beethoven was something you wanted to do very early on—

Hilary Hahn Yup. Those two.

Brian McCreath Yeah, exactly. [Hahn and McCreath laugh] So, with these two always kind of—like, their siblings practically, right? In the repertoire family. How similar are the challenges that you're presented with in these two pieces, or are they like the siblings that are so different that you can't even almost have them in the same room? What is your sort of approach when you know you're going to do Beethoven? What is it that you're really going to be paying attention to that might be the same, similar, or different from Brahms?

Hilary Hahn They are very much like siblings, like they're just very different. But I don't approach them differently. It's like being a parent of two very different children. [Hahn laughs] You try to be fair.

Brian McCreath Okay, I can relate to this, actually. [Hahn and McCreath laugh]

Hilary Hahn And you have to kind of navigate—because you're still the same person. It's still the same life. So you try to navigate the repertoire. But I can't be someone different from who I am. So I don't take on a different persona in Brahms or a different persona in Beethoven. In fact, I like to think of them as more similar than people may realize, because often when I'm playing Brahms, I like a more classical approach. I've found that not to try to be more classical, but for me, the more classical style of writing you find in Beethoven and Mozart, it's actually lively and clear in ways that people don't often think of Brahms as being. They think of Brahms as sort of heavy and massive, but actually there's a playfulness and a sort of radicalism in how he uses seemingly simple harmonic progressions and arpeggios and rhythms... Brahms, you know, in how he does it, and same for Beethoven and how he does it. I think also Bach, you know, Bach is thought of in a way like a standard bearer of the whole genre. But the way he works within the solo repertoire for violin is just incredibly radical. I don't think people write like that even today.

So when we're looking back at classical things, it's almost like they were writing without a template. They were just inventing, and there was so much that hadn't yet been invented that we take for granted now. They had all of that to choose from, so they were sort of headed in that direction. And so with Beethoven, I like to just play it as it comes. And I don't try to be in a certain style, but I think my playing lends itself really well to that classicism, but like an updated version, kind of like a combo stylistic approach. And I sometimes find myself in Brahms, like for example, at the end of the cadenza or in some of the passage work, wondering if I'm in the right piece because there's so much in it that's like Beethoven. And so I'm looking forward to getting to Beethoven from the Brahms with this collaboration working back into it. There's also, in the Beethoven, the cadenza by Kreisler, which is really classic, which I was taught by my teacher who knew Kreisler. And so I really love playing that particular cadenza for the Beethoven. And I think just in general, Beethoven is such an epic piece that a lot of people already know that it's fun to just play it. It's not like you have to convince anyone of anything. You just play it and it's going to be great.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. Hilary, I could talk to you all day—

Hilary Hahn [Hahn chuckles] Same!

Brian McCreath —but thank you so much for all these thoughts. I really appreciate it.

Hilary Hahn Thank you.